LaMarcus Aldridge is rising. Portland’s power forward has annihilated Rockets defenders for the first two games of the Blazers-Rockets first round clash. Wesley Mathews continues to play his role of defensive disruptor, outside shooter and surprisingly effective post-up option for the Blazers. Mathews may have the makings of a future coach.
HOUSTON – As the Portland Trail Blazers today enjoy probably the highest of their highs this season after an overtime victory in Game 1 at Houston, it seems apt to remember it wasn’t long ago when this Blazers team had reached the lowest of its lows.
It was March 25, in Orlando, and the Blazers had just suffered a 95-85 defeat to the rebuilding Magic. It was their third loss in row. The eighth in the last 11. And what seemed like a certain playoff berth had now eroded to a precarious 2 ½ game lead over Phoenix.
Then, it happened.
Before the players had even taken off their uniforms, the Blazers starting shooting guard launched into an expletive-laden, to-the-point message that it was now or never for the Blazers.
“Everybody has seen me mad on this team, but I think they saw me at another level where it was beyond a rage or an anger,’’ Matthews said.
Things happen inside a locker room over the course of the season. Tempers flare. Moods swing. And sometimes team meetings sprout up. Thirteen days before the Orlando loss, the Blazers held a team meeting in San Antonio, prompted by Damian Lillard.
Lillard said the San Antonio meeting was rooted in encouragement, and in trying to find a spark. In Orlando, with Matthews spitting hot coals, Lillard said it was “desperation. It was more like life and death. That this is it.’’
Said Matthews: “It was ‘This is a wake the (expletive) up!’’’
The Blazers won their next game in Atlanta. Then, on a back-to-back that capped a five-game trip, they trounced Chicago. They came home and beat Memphis. The next thing Rip City knew, the Blazers were rolling again.
Portland finished the season winning nine of 10, and counting Game 1, they have won 10 of their last 11.
It helped that immediately after Matthews’ speech, Aldridge returned and played brilliantly. But the players said in the course of a long season, when things tend to blur, Matthews’ moment in Orlando stands out.
“I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me that question,’’ Nicolas Batum said. “Ever since that game, something happened. But I don’t want to talk about it, because I’m superstitious.’’
The thing about Matthews’ speech is that he wasn’t going to say anything until he was prompted by Aldridge.
“Me and L.A. are like brothers,’’ Matthews said. “We can read each other.’’
Aldridge was in an awkward spot. He had missed the past seven games with a back injury, which required him to watch the games from the locker room. He said he had been detached from the heat of the battle, and felt unable to voice his leadership.
It needed to come from somebody in the trenches. Somebody whose voice carried weight in the locker room.
“I’m not big on being a rah-rah guy when I’m not in the fire with the guys,’’ Aldridge said. “So I just pulled him aside and said ‘I can’t talk, but you have to talk.’
“I think everybody sees what Wes is about, and everybody respects his effort,’’ Aldridge said. “And when he talks, it’s not empty air. He says things that need to be said.’’
Matthews said he was reluctant at first. He had already been vocal with the team earlier in the season. He felt like everything had already been said. But then Aldridge said something that clicked with him.
“He mentioned that we only had 10 games left,’’ Matthews said of Aldridge. “And I don’t know why, but that just kind of made me go.’’
He stood before the team and laid it out.
“I said ‘We have played this hard, for this long, at this record, and talked about this for this long … and we are pissing it away. ’’’ Matthews said. “ I said ‘We will all regret this if we don’t make it. But we have 10 games: we are not safe. We are not guaranteed. These teams are right behind us. We have no tie breakers with anybody, which means we have to win.’’
He set a goal for the team to win seven of its final 10 games and he suggested each player look at himself and examine how he could better help the team. He went first.
“I said I need to rebound,’’ Matthews said. “That’s where I could help us. I can’t keep having games where I’m having zero, one, two rebounds anymore. I said whatever it is, you have to do a little bit more.’’
Mo Williams, in his 11th NBA season, said there are moments in a season when a teammate speaks up and it catches everybody’s attention. He said it tends to have a refocusing effect.
“That was one of those times,’’ Williams said.
When he was done, Matthews said he knew he reached his teammates.
“I could tell by the reception I got afterward,’’ Matthews said. “It was quiet. I was as irritated as I’ve been but I was looking straight ahead when I was talking. Then I looked around, and everybody’s eye was on me. They knew. They could feel it.’’
Lillard, who led the emotional meeting in San Antonio, called Matthews’ speech “huge” because “it was one of those breaking points.’’
“When Wes spoke up, everybody realized how big of a deal it was,’’ Lillard said. “It was no longer ‘We’re still good. We’ve got this.’ It was, ‘We’ve gotta find a way.’’
“Finding a way” has been somewhat of a mantra with this team late in the season, and into this first round series with Houston. The Rockets are favored and have the star power, but the Blazers keep vowing to find a way, and preach the way to do it is by sticking together.
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